Questions raised over council HQ move to Banbury's Castle Quay amid claims the shopping mall has lost £81m in value
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The council’s opposition group says there has not been enough consultation over the move. The group claims Cherwell Conservatives have made decisions and chosen the buyer of Bodicote House in secret.
And they say Castle Quay accommodation may not be cheaper, as it may need air conditioning and better lighting to be environmentally suitable. But they say the move may be a solution to the large amount of ‘unlettable, redundant’ shop units which are not earning money for the council.
“We are uneasy about the speed at which the proposals have been agreed by the Executive with virtually no involvement with the general membership,” the group of Greens, Lib Dems and Independents told the Banbury Guardian.
“The opposition were presented with a virtually fully formed plan for reconfiguration of Castle Quay and sale of Bodicote House with no opportunity to engage beyond making comments in the closed Executive meeting.”
One source said they felt the council was attempting to rewrite history, describing the council’s purchase of Castle Quay at over £60m as done to ‘regenerate’ the town centre where, they maintain it was bought as a commercial investment – one that has lost much of its value.
The 2021/22 accounts said Castle Quay was valued at £15.4m. The council paid £62m for the centre but it is not known if that was only for the 85 per cent that Cherwell did not own.
"If that is the case the centre was valued at even more at the time. But even using the £62m figure the devaluation suggests the centre has fallen in value by three quarters rather than a half,” said Cllr Ian Middleton, Green.
“The centre and the waterfront project combined has lost around £81m in value as assessed in 2022. Whatever the council claims the move will save, it’s probably never going to compensate for the staggering losses in investment value or the repeated budgetary pressures the centre has placed on the council since it was purchased by them.
"The council is arguing that putting the offices in CQ will revitalise the centre, but that’s just speculation. It could also have a detrimental effect by changing the nature from a retail centre. I argued that by taking out some retail units they are reducing the council’s earning potential on the investment but they said that there has been no interest in letting them as retail. That to me alone seems like an admission that the whole CQ plan was wrong,” he said.”The main increase in footfall is going to be staff so it’s hardly going to broaden the catchment of the centre in any meaningful way. It may bring more business to the centre of Banbury but I would think that would be minimal.”
A CDC spokesman said the council would be using first floor accommodation at Castle Quay. “The council’s commitment is a long term one and we have no intention to sell the centre. The council will continue to monitor demand for retail space in the future and look to facilitate the use of units in Castle Quay and across the town centre to meet any future increase in demand.
“There are numerous other parties looking to move to Castle Quay – both retail and non-retail - and our office move is giving those parties confidence in moving to the centre.”
Cllr Barry Wood, CDC Leader, said: “We have communicated clearly to all members about the purpose behind the acquisition of Castle Quay as it supported our commitment to fostering a prosperous and vibrant town centre for residents and visitors. This investment in Banbury's future has already seen the creation of new jobs, attracted new investment and canalside development, and built new confidence within the business community during challenging times.
“The Castle Quay project is part of a bigger plan. It is the catalyst for regeneration and part of our long-term vision for Banbury. This is further evidenced by the Banbury Vision 2050 project we have launched and are currently engaging the local community on.
“We have also ensured transparency with all councillors on the potential office relocation to Castle Quay and the sale of Bodicote House by sharing comprehensive reports on the plans. Regular briefings and dedicated meetings with leaders from all political groups have ensured a well-informed decision-making process.
“We have considered the condition of the units and associated costs to adapt them into offices in the business case. Bearing in mind the council’s needs, a move to Castle Quay will allow us to establish new headquarters in a smaller, more modern and energy-efficient space. Moving our offices there will bring more people, and it is making others—shops and businesses—want to come too."
Opposition group leader David Hingley, Lib Dem, said little information had been given about what will happen to Bodicote House.
“This is an extensive site in the heart of the village and I shall be looking to see the needs of the community are taken properly into account, including protection of the natural environment and the listed buildings.
"The disappointing lack of consultation needs to be rectified with full and immediate involvement of the local parish. Any development considered for Bodicote House must be accompanied by the proper infrastructure needed to serve not only new arrivals but the existing community as well.”